A Deterrence Strategy to Replace Israel’s Lost Nuclear Ambiguity

Israel’s prime minister Ehud Olmert embarks on a European tour this week that takes him first to Rome and the Vatican, then to Berlin Tuesday, Dec. 12.
In an interview with the German Der Spiegel, Saturday Dec. 9, he expressed the hope that the international community would take firmer action against Iranian president Ahmed Ahmadinejad for seeking to wipe Israel of the map. “Such talk is criminal,” he said.
Questioned on Iran’s nuclear program, Olmert said he does not object to the proposal to engage Tehran in direct talks if they lead to the program’s suspension.
As to an Israeli pre-emptive military attack on Iran, the prime minister said: “I rule nothing out.”
Friday, in a phone conversation with Russian president Vladimir Putin, Olmert said he hoped for progress towards a Security Council vote on sanctions against Iran.
debkafile‘s analysts liken these wishy-washy phrases to the way US president George W. Bush used to talk in reference to the Iranian nuclear issue. This outdated verbiage from an Israeli leader is worse than useless; it conveys the impression that Israeli has been left with no nuclear deterrence policy, since designated US defense secretary Robert Gates blew Israel’s nuclear ambiguity cover at his Senate confirmation hearings last week. He succeeded in arbitrarily terminating 40 years of a posture which neither admitted nor denied its nuclear capabilities, with the United States playing along.
The incoming defense secretary took this another step: He made it clear that “no one can promise that Iran will not use nuclear weapons against Israel.”
In other words, the US has washed its hands of responsibility for stopping Iran nuking Israel (or anyone else for that matter); indeed in a nuclear confrontation, the United States will stand aside.
His words evoked no clear response from government officials in Jerusalem. Maybe they were struck dumb. Or more likely, Israeli official spokesmen have not yet caught onto the fast-moving changes in their country’s strategic values.
This was apparent at a high-profile US-Israeli get-together at the Saban Forum in Washington’s Brookings Institute. The subject: “How Israel should deal with its neighbors” was put before a star-studded roster of participants: President William Clinton, Israeli vice premier Shimon Peres, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, US Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Israeli minister for strategic affairs Avigdor Lieberman, US Assistant Secretary of State David Welch, Israeli foreign minister Zipi Livni, Israeli minister of education Yuli Tamir, former Shin Bet chief and MK Ami Ayalon, as well as the US secretary of state’s senior adviser on Iraq David Satterfield, former CIA director George Tenet, former Israeli national security adviser Giora Eiland and Israeli military intelligence director Amos Yadlin.
Yet in their discussions did not scrutinize the fallout from the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq submitted last Wednesday, or the implications of its proposal for Washington to open a diplomatic track with Tehran. No imprint was left by James Baker’s revelation to the Senate Armed Forces Committee Thursday, Dec. 7 of the message to Tehran that, subject to certain caveats, Washington would accept the continuation of Iran’s nuclear activities in return for help in securing an orderly US military withdrawal from Iraq.
The venerable Israeli statesman Shimon Peres alone voiced mild criticism of past and present US policy on Iran when he said the Islamic Republic’s strength derives from the weakness of the international community and its inability to pull together on the Iranian nuclear threat.
His words contradicted the Olmert government’s stance which shifts the onus for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat to the international community.
Robert Gates won bipartisan acclaim in the US Senate for a new path which presages drastic US policy changes in three spheres which bear profoundly on Israel’s military and diplomatic situation: Iran, its nuclear program and a Middle East nuclear arms race.
If Olmert’s Der Spiegel interview is Israel’s definitive commentary on the new ground Gates has broken in US foreign policy, Ahmanidejad may be forgiven for assuming that Israel has nothing to say to his threats and Putin for believing he can get away with evasions on effective sanctions against Iran.
Timid diplomatic rhetoric will no longer serve. debkafile‘s military sources say the time has come for Israel to talk as though it has arrows in its quiver and is capable of using them. Its vanished deterrence can be retrieved, for instance, by press leaks or even an announcement that a new surface missile has been launched, which foreign media would disclose is capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, or the firing of a new Israeli cruise missile from a Dolphin submarine cruising at the Indian Ocean’s point of convergence with the Arabian Sea.
This is the sort of publicity tactic Tehran employs; it works. The effectiveness of its provocative talk depends on Israel shrinking back, instead of marching forward and hitting back in kind.
Iran’s radical leaders don’t always bother with new or even true shockers. Saturday, the Iranian president recycled an oft-used claim that Iran has started installing 3,000 centrifuges for uranium enrichment at a plant in central Iran, the first step towards industrial production. Nuclear experts immediately seized on the threat embodied in this statement (as was intended) and predicted that within two years, if the centrifuges spin smoothly, Iran will be able to turn out 3-4 small nuclear bombs a year.
Iran, still far from possessing an independent nuclear bomb, has big-mouthed itself into the position of a nuclear power, while Israel, which is the genuine article, is brushed aside as a non-player.
In the past, there was a certain amount of free interplay in public discourse among civilian and military officials on strategic matters. Not today. Olmert exercises tight control over all pronouncements and holds them strictly to his guidelines. Since innovative thinking is not exactly the prime minister’s forte, as indicated by his messages to Putin and Der Spiegeli, public discourse in Israel is starved of dynamic ideas.

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